As a nationally respected program with a lengthy post-season resume, it’s tough to call Syracuse the ”Cinderella” of this year’s NCAA Tournament. But compared to the other three members of this weekend’s Final Four, that’s the role that legendary head coach Jim Boeheim and the Orange have been given.
Facing long odds and a rough road to Houston, Syracuse entered the NCAA Tournament as a non-threatening example of the quality of this season’s ACC, and, along with Pittsburgh, the lowest seeded of the conference’s seven tourney teams.
But after quieting their many critics by disposing of seventh-seeded Dayton in the opening round, the Orange fell into some seriously good fortune when Middle Tennessee’s upset-win over mighty Michigan State set up a second-round showdown between Boeheim’s boys and the Blue Raiders instead of the second-seeded Spartans.
With a 25-point win over Middle Tennessee and a ticket to the Sweet 16, Syracuse surpassed even the wildest of pre-tournament expectations. For a ”bubble” team that dropped five of its last six games heading into the madness, two wins is a legitimate accomplishment.
Then, just when it looked as though their luck had finally run out, the Orange were once again the benefactors of a sizable upset within their bracket when Gonzaga’s 23-point destruction of no.3 seed Utah saved Syracuse from a dreaded date with the Utes.
Underrated and anxious to prove it, the 11th-seeded Bulldogs weren’t supposed to let the overlooked Orange end the college careers of departing superstars Kyle Wiltjier and Domantas Sabonis. In fact, it would’ve been fitting if an original underdog like Gonzaga ended Syracuse’s suddenly-memorable season.
Yet, in spite of a fairly poor shooting performance that saw senior Michael Gbinije finish just 1-5 from long-range, Syracuse managed to keep pace with the WCC-power before overcoming a late, nine-point deficit to knock-off the Bulldogs 63-60 and earn an extremely unlikely trip to the Elite 8.
Defeating Dayton was one thing, and obviously, Michigan State’s early exit played a huge role in Syracuse’s appearance in the Sweet 16. But prior to their match-up with top-seeded Virginia, most figured that the Elite 8 would only offer the Orange a chance to be crushed in front of a national audience by a team they’d already lost to during conference play.
Down 14 to start the second half, Boeheim and the Orange didn’t even look like they’d be able to stop the Cavaliers from turning the final 20 minutes into a reserve-heavy scrimmage and an opportunity to rest their starters.
At that point, maybe we should’ve known that the Orange had stumbled onto a potent dose of madness-mojo that made them just as dangerous as any of the other remaining teams. Either way, fearless freshman Malachai Richardson’s 21 second-half points, plus Virginia’s shooting struggles over the final 20 minutes, equaled an unforgettable comeback for Syracuse—and an unbelievable berth in the Final Four.
”It was a whole team effort and these guys really deserve it,” said Boeheim. ”We beat a great basketball team. I’ve never been prouder in all my 40 years as coach of a basketball team as I am of this team tonight.”
Now, with headlines asking if Syracuse is ”the worst Final Four team ever”, and Las Vegas odds-makers pointing out the painfully obvious, Boeheim and the Orange will square-off with North Carolina on Saturday night to earn a shot at the unthinkable.
”We had a lot of doubters,” said freshman Tyler Lyndon following SU’s latest upset-victory. ”A lot of people who believed that we shouldn’t even be in this tournament. I’m sure there are still a lot of people who think that. But we know what we can do as a team, and that’s all that matters.”
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